By Nils Skudra
This week I took the opportunity to watch The Theory of Everything, a 2014 biographical film about the renowned cosmologist and physicist Stephen Hawking who struggled with ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) throughout his life but achieved remarkable success and international fame for his contributions to scientific theory.
I felt that this film would be an ideal candidate for a review since it depicts how Hawking’s disability profoundly affected his marriage and his personal life, but in spite of this he did not let the disease become an obstacle to his professional achievements. This is a message that can resonate with people of various disabilities since they have the ability to fulfill their potential if they have the necessary willpower and support from family.
The film opens with Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) in a wheelchair at Buckingham Palace with his family, awaiting their meeting with Queen Elizabeth II. As Stephen circles about and watches his children playing, he reminisces about his time at the University of Cambridge in 1962, which the film subsequently flashes back to. As a young PhD student, an able-bodied Stephen is shown bicycling with his friend and roommate Brian to a college party, where he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a literature student who is told by her friend that Stephen is “strange but clever.” She quickly takes a liking to him, although they differ in their religious views; while she is a devout Christian, he refers to his field of cosmology as “a kind of religion for intelligent atheists.” A connection quickly develops between them, and she gives him her phone number, indicating that she would be interested in meeting him again.
Stephen is currently struggling to determine a thesis topic for his PhD, which is a source of concern for his friends and his professor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), who recognizes Stephen’s mathematical brilliance and encourages him to attend an upcoming lecture about black holes in London. Meanwhile, he continues to court Jane, inviting her to his parents’ home for dinner where he announces that he will be taking her to the college dance, much to Jane’s surprise since he had not consulted her about this. During the event, Stephen displays some signs of social awkwardness since he prefers to watch the dancing rather than take part in it, and he makes intriguing scientific observations about the ultraviolet light being reflected off of the dancers. Nonetheless, when they are alone together on the bridge, he finds comfort in dancing with Jane, and they share a kiss.
While Stephen works on the research for his thesis, he begins to display signs of a mysterious disease, as his hands experience tremors that cause shaking and difficulty in properly picking up a pen. In addition, as he makes his way up the train platform for his class trip to London, he stumbles and holds onto the railing, momentarily halting before he boards the train. The lecture gives Stephen the inspiration to make black holes the focus of his thesis topic, speculating that they may have played a role in the creation of the universe. He explains this to Jane in terms of “winding back the clock” to the beginning of time, and Prof. Sciama encourages him to develop the mathematics that will support his thesis. However, things take a frightening turn when Stephen’s muscle tremors cause him to trip and hit his head, resulting in his hospitalization.
Following his medical examination, Stephen learns that he has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neuromuscular disease which kills the brain cells responsible for his motor functions, such as eating, swallowing, speaking, or breathing, and will result in gradual muscle deterioration. This will eventually lead to a complete loss of the ability to control voluntary movement. In addition, he is told that while the disease will not affect his thoughts, the gradual loss of speech means that he will ultimately be unable to articulate them. He is given a grim prognosis for an average life expectancy of two years, a revelation which makes Stephen reclusive and bitter, and he isolates himself from Jane in order to complete his PhD with the time that he has left.
When Jane learns about Stephen’s diagnosis, she comes to visit him and insists that he come out to play a game of croquet with her, which he grudgingly agrees to do. During the game, Jane sees firsthand the severity of Stephen’s condition, as he stumbles and hobbles while walking and struggles to pick up the croquet ball. She is heartbroken by this, but instead of abandoning Stephen she confesses her love for him and announces her desire to marry him. Although Stephen protests that his condition will affect everything in their marriage and that he only has two years to live, she states, “I want us to be together for as long as we’ve got, and if that’s not very long, well, then that’s just how it is. It’ll have to do.” She later reaffirms this resolve in a discussion with Stephen’s father in spite of his warning that “the weight of science is against you,” to which she replies, “I know what you all think, that I don’t look like a terribly strong person. But I love him, and he loves me. We’re going to fight this illness, together.”
Stephen and Jane subsequently marry, and they soon have their first child Robert. Stephen’s cognizance of his limited life expectancy gives him the conviction to write about the history of time, leading to his PhD thesis on the creation of the universe through a Big Bang, followed by the emission of heat and an eventual end of the universe in a Big Crunch. Prof. Sciama and the other examination board members are deeply impressed by Stephen’s thesis, and he receives his PhD. When asked what his next goal will be, Stephen answers,
To prove with a single equation that time had a beginning. Wouldn’t that be nice professor? The one simple elegant equation, to explain everything.
Although Stephen’s PhD is a cause for celebration with his friends and family, his condition continues to worsen as he loses the ability to walk, evidenced by his painful effort to crawl up the stairs toward his son. Consequently, he must use a wheelchair, and he is given a bed in the kitchen, which, he jokingly remarks, is “convenient for breakfast.” After the birth of their daughter Lucy, Stephen is inspired to develop a new theory about the visibility of black holes while viewing the fireplace flames through his sweater, and his presentation of this theory leads to international recognition as a physicist. Jane then buys him an electric wheelchair, which makes his mobility more efficient, but the burden of caring for him and their children, with whom he constantly plays and knocks things over in the household, prevents Jane from concentrating on her thesis. Her frustration and depression come to a head when Stephen chokes while visiting his parents, after which she angrily tells him, “I can’t do this on my own,” and rebuffs his reply that they are a normal family, protesting, “No, we are not a normal family! Robbie is missing out on his childhood!”
Jane’s mother convinces her to join the local church choir in order to ease some of the pressure from her family life. Upon meeting the choir master Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), who is immediately attracted to her, Jane informs him of her need for help in caring for Stephen and invites him to dinner at their home. While Stephen is initially suspicious of Jonathan, he develops a liking for him and tells Jane that he will not object to Jonathan’s support. Jonathan thus becomes a close friend of the family, giving the children piano lessons, helping Stephen with his needs, and going out on vacations with them. In the process, he and Jane develop romantic feelings for each other, although she remains faithful to Stephen.
Following the birth of their third child Timothy, suspicion falls upon Jane from Stephen’s mother due to Jonathan’s closeness with the family, prompting him to withdraw from their lives, although he and Jane privately admit their feelings for one another. Nonetheless, Stephen maintains his trust in Jonathan and asks him to accompany Jane and the children on a camping trip while Stephen attends an opera production in Bordeaux, France. Jane is thus left with the opportunity to examine, and possibly act upon, her feelings for Jonathan, but their trip is cut short when they learn that Stephen has fallen ill during the performance and is in hospital. She learns that he has contracted pneumonia and must undergo a tracheotomy in order to survive, although this will deprive him of his voice. While she is warned that Stephen may not survive the surgery, Jane adamantly insists that it must take place and asserts that her husband will live.
Following the tracheotomy, Stephen is deeply depressed over losing his ability to speak, and he is unresponsive when Jane uses a spelling board in an effort to make him communicate by blinking his eyes. However, when she hires Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) as Stephen’s new live-in nurse, he finds her to have a more vibrant and down-to-earth personality, and therefore he eagerly cooperates when Elaine communicates with him. They soon acquire a voice synthesizer for Stephen, enabling him to communicate with a computerized voice and write a best-selling book, entitled A Brief History of Time. Over the course of his time with Elaine, he falls in love with her, as she easily connects with him and understands his prurient interest in pornography. She in turn is impressed by his sharp wit and sense of humor, and Jane is increasingly excluded from their interactions.
After he is invited to speak at an award ceremony in America, Stephen confesses to Jane that he has asked Elaine to accompany him, with the expectation that she, rather than Jane, will take care of him. Jane takes this as a devastating betrayal, having spent 25 years supporting Stephen through his illness and having raised a family with him. When Stephen asks “How many years,” Jane tearfully responds, “They said two. We’ve had so many.” Stephen then tries to comfort her, stating, “Everything will be okay,” to which Jane solemnly replies, “I have loved you. I did my best.” This scene is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the film since it effectively signals the end of Stephen’s and Jane’s marriage, in which she has cared for him and stayed by his side at a tremendous emotional and psychological cost, and viewers may feel very unsympathetic toward Stephen for leaving a companion who has shown such immense loyalty to him.
Stephen’s divorce from Jane leaves her free to renew her relationship with Jonathan, which quickly leads to their marriage. During the award ceremony in America, Stephen is commended by Prof. Sciama for having “defied every obstacle, both scientific and personal,” and he arrives onstage to accept the award and answer questions from the audience. While being asked about his philosophy of life, Stephen notices a student dropping her pen on the floor, which prompts him to imagine getting up out of his wheelchair to retrieve it, which brings him to the verge of tears since he knows that he cannot. Finally, in response to the question, he answers:
There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.
This statement is a profound reflection on Stephen’s accomplishments in the face of all the suffering that he has experienced due to his disease.
Originally given a prognosis of two years, he has far outlived that prediction and achieved astounding success as a physicist through his intellectual pursuits and the fervent support that Jane has given him. In addition, although most able-bodied women would probably have rejected him because of his illness, he found in Jane a strong and supportive soulmate who accepted his condition and cared for him, even though it was a heavy emotional burden for her. Furthermore, they have raised three children together, a fact which maintains their bond on friendly terms in the aftermath of their divorce. This is beautifully captured in the film’s climactic scene following their meeting with the queen; as they walk through the royal gardens, Stephen writes “Look what we made,” and he and Jane watch their children as they come to join their parents. Finally, the film flashes back through a series of defining moments in Stephen’s life, concluding with the party in which he and Jane first met.
Eddie Redmayne delivers a superb, Oscar-winning performance as Stephen Hawking, brilliantly capturing his personality and the successive stages of his disability. In the DVD special features, Redmayne recalls that he studied extensively about ALS, which included meeting the real Stephen Hawking and other individuals who have the disease, in order to understand its symptoms. Some critics may object that the casting of Redmayne in the role of Hawking poses issues of representation since he is an able-bodied actor while a real-life ALS actor would truly convey the challenges of having the disease. However, I believe that Redmayne’s portrayal is highly convincing, and the fact that he carried out in-depth research on ALS and consulted with real-life ALS individuals shows that he brought a deep sensitivity to his performance. In my opinion, Redmayne definitely earned his Oscar award for his performance.
Felicity Jones also delivers a compelling, Oscar-nominated performance as Jane Hawking, beautifully conveying her assertiveness and her emotional vulnerability as she struggles to care for Stephen. She and Redmayne have a superb onscreen chemistry, and both of the real Hawkings stated that they felt the actors truly captured them. Furthermore, the film articulates a powerful message about the potential of individuals with severe, often life-threatening disabilities to achieve personal and professional success, as well as the challenges that families can face in supporting them. For disabled viewers, hopefully The Theory of Everything can provide an inspiration for them to pursue their dreams, and while their families may certainly relate to its depiction of the challenges that Jane Hawking struggled with in caring for Stephen, they can still come away with the resolve to support their family members so that they can fulfill those dreams.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.